Dan Morain

The Numbers Crunch: Colorado starts surveying the Rocky Mountain high

A customer pays for his marijuana purchase at one of Bruce Nassau's five shops in Denver on April 19, 2015.
A customer pays for his marijuana purchase at one of Bruce Nassau's five shops in Denver on April 19, 2015. The New York Times

The Mile High City definitely is.

A survey by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows 18.5 percent of adults 18 and older in Denver have smoked, vaped or eaten marijuana in the past month.

By comparison, 13.6 percent of Colorado adults statewide and 7.4 percent nationally have used the weed in the past 30 days.

Kevin A. Sabet, head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an organization opposed to legalization, said the first major survey of marijuana use in one of the first two states to legalize the weed suggests consumption is rising, while it’s leveling off in the rest of the country.

Because survey methods have changes, comparisons are tough to make between use now and before 2012 when Colorado voters approved a state constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana.

But those earlier surveys showed 10.4 percent of adults used marijuana in 2012, and 12.9 in 2013. If those numbers are correct, Sabet said, use has increased significantly since legalization.

“These are pretty big jumps whereas in a lot of the country you’ve seen a leveling off,” Sabet said.

However, Dr. Larry Wolk, Colorado’s chief medical officer, noted that Colorado traditionally has been a heavy use state, and said the survey “doesn’t indicate or support the notion that there is a surge as a result of legalization.”

“As a public health guy, I was a bit reassured,” Wolk said. “We’re not seeing a significant increase in use.”

In Colorado, a third of users in 2014 reported using marijuana daily.

Of the current users, 18.8 percent report driving after getting high, a percentage that should worry the highway patrol, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and car insurance companies, but might hearten plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Latinos are the least heavy users among various ethnic groups. Gay, lesbian and bisexual adults are much more likely to currently use marijuana than straight people. Younger adults and people who have lower household income are heavier users than are older or wealthier people. Far more men than women use marijuana.

Probably the most alarming number is that 6.9 percent of parents of children between 1 and 14 stash their marijuana in or around the home. Like other experts, Wolk noted that marijuana use is detrimental for teenagers whose brains are developing.

Wolk worries edible marijuana in the form of candy, brownies and other sweets entice kids, just like the Joe Camel logo was aimed at luring kids into smoking tobacco.

Even if use is flat in Colorado, there is plenty in this latest survey that is relevant to California, where Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is the leading proponent of an initiative probably headed to the 2016 ballot to fully legalize marijuana here.

Newsom has said he intends to learn from the experiences of other states. Maybe he could start by writing into the proposed initiative a ban on the use of sweets spiked with marijuana’s brain altering chemical.

By the numbers

Colorado survey marijuana use among adults

  • 13.6 percent have used in the past 30 days
  • 6.9 percent of parents of children 1-14 had marijuana in the home
  • 9.06 percent of California adults reported marijuana use in 2013
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